Silversmithing – Tools of the Trade – The Hammer

Some time ago, I wrote an overview of all the basic tools required to do silversmithing. Since then, I have had requests to write about all the various tools in greater detail. This then, following the order of presentation in the original article, is the first of many articles to cover the basic tools. I will begin with hammers and mallets.

Whereas a carpenter’s hammer is primarily used to drive nails, brads and the like into wood, a silversmith’s hammers are primarily used to shape and form metal in one way or another.

The number of hammers and mallets available to the silversmith is truly tremendous. They include the silversmith’s hammer, embossing hammer, planishing hammer, raising hammer, ball peen hammer, chasing hammer, and riveting hammer. They are made of hardened steel, brass and nylon. Mallets also come in nylon as well as plastic, brass, wood, resin and rawhide. They each have a fairly specific use which is mostly how their names are derived. For that reason, talking about each specific hammer is a lot like a discussion of the technique for which it is used. Just as you can not separate a smith from her tools, you can not separate a hammer’s purpose from the procedure.

The silversmith’s hammer is used for banging out anything from spoons to small trays. There are a couple of styles, but basically it has a two-sided head, both sides of which are domed. The sheet metal to be formed is placed in a wood dapping block (a block of hard wood that has had bowl shaped depressions of various sizes formed into it…these will be covered at a later date) and struck with the hammer. You can create bowls, trays, vases, pitchers and all manner of vessels. This is known as “raising.” Raising is a technique that has been around for a very long time. It has been said that there is really only one right way to raise: the way that works! Experimentation and practice will serve you best. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses to work around. But do not let that stop you getting some professional instruction if you feel the need.

The silversmith’s hammer along with both embossing hammers and planishing hammers are used to raise or depress the surface you are working on. The embossing hammer (similar in appearance to the silversmith’s except the heads are a little larger and one head will often be flat instead of domed), when driven against the inner walls of a raised work will elevate positions on the surface and can also be used for planishing. Planishing hammers (even larger heads with one flat and one domed) are ideal for smoothing out surface imperfections and finishing the surface of a piece that has been raised.

Raising hammers are used most often on the outside surface to force the basic shape of metal objects. They are usually used in conjunction with stakes. Think of a tent stake with an exotic shape. Stakes are held in place by a double jawed vise or a special stake vise. They come in fantastic shapes with odd names, like cow’s tongue stake. The metal to be shaped is place over them and struck from the outside with the raising hammer.

The riveting hammer, simply put, is used for forming rivets. It is a smaller and lighter hammer than those already discussed. One end of the head is flat and the other is chisel shaped. There are a number of ways to form rivets, but they all begin with widening one end of a short piece of wire. Most often you will do this by holding the wire in a pliers or vise and striking it with the chiseled end of the hammer. Once the end is widened it is inserted into the hole prepared for it and the rivet is finished with the flat side of the hammer. Some shaping and smoothing of the rivet is usually required.

The silversmith’s ball peen hammer looks very much like your average, every day garden variety ball peen hammer. It is primarily used for removing dents. The ball end of the head is good for dimpling and stippling.

Finally, there is the chasing hammer or chaser hammer. Many of the hammers mentioned previously have straight handles. Chasers are different in that they usually have a fattened end to the handle. They are commonly gripped well back of the head with the fattened end resting comfortably in the palm of the hand. This is the hammer I consider to be the best all around hammer to own. If you can afford only one hammer, buy a chaser.

The head of a chasing hammer will be either flat or domed on one side and have a ball on the other. I have one of each; flat and domed. They have taken me through just about everything I have wanted to do with sheet and wire. The ball end is great for putting a dimple pattern in sheet metal or on wire.

By the way, chasing is the method of incising a design on metal using a chasing tool. You use a chasing hammer to strike the steel chasing tool into your metal, moving the tool along to create the pattern or picture. If you plan on chasing, you might want to have two chasing hammers; one for chasing (the head will become marred from repeatedly striking the chasing tool) and one for planishing. Many jewelry makers use a chaser as a planisher.

Why buy a hammer made of a material other than one made of hardened steel? There are several reasons. Sometimes you do not want even the possibility of marking your metal with your hammer or mallet. And indeed, it is most commonly the mallets that are made in the other materials.

Rawhide and wooden mallets are great for pounding a finger ring round on a steel ring mandrel. Often times, you will do much of the major construction on a finger ring before making it round and soldering it together. The rawhide mallet is perfect for this. Plastic and resin mallets will also perform the same with a similar “bounce back” to the rawhide. Brass mallets are also softer than most metals the silversmith will be using and are employed when you do not want to mar the metal.

Be careful how you use your hammer and your hammer will last you a lifetime. Protect your hardened steel hammers from exposure to water. A little light mineral oil from time to time will help keep them from rusting. Should your hammer rust, sand it until the rust is removed and then using fine sandpaper; restore it to a nice smooth finish. If you have a polishing motor, you may also bring it back to a nice shine with a mild polishing compound. Be sure to oil the hammer head afterwards.

If you get pits and scratches in your steel hammer, these will transfer to the metal you are working. And actually, silversmiths quite frequently will purposely grind or file a pattern onto the head of a hammer in order to create patterns on their work. But if that is not what you want, do not strike anything harder than, or as hard as the hammer, with the hammer. When I am using hardened steel stamps to decorate my work, I use a regular carpenter’s hammer. This way, I do not ruin my silver working hammers. At any rate, the pits and scratches may be dealt with as for rust. Although, if they are really deep, you might have to do a little grinding on a silicone carbide grinding wheel first.

There is something very satisfying about banging away on a piece of metal with a hammer. But please be sure to wear eye protection at all times. And it is a good idea to protect your hearing also. As fun as it is, it can be very loud.

So grab a hammer and some metal and start hammering. You might find you will never want to stop.